Policy Studies

In Pursuit of Excellence: Classical Education as Character Education at The University of Dallas


America’s founders believed that character education should play a key role in the nation’s school system. Indeed, in drafting Massachusetts’ Constitution—one of the major models for the U.S. Constitution—John Adams acknowledged its importance at the outset, explaining that “wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue” weren’t just important but “necessary for the preservation of […] rights and liberties.” As R Street tackles the role of civil society in a democracy strained by political polarization, issues of character are at least as important now as they were in Adams’ time.

As such, an exploration of a teacher education program that puts questions of character center stage is all the more timely. The University of Dallas’ Teacher Classical Education Graduate program does not just teach out of textbooks but instead explores questions like “Does the right kind of mathematics lesson help inculcate personal virtue?” or “Can the study of rhetoric improve political discourse on the national stage?” Ambitiously, UD’s program not only aims to shape teachers for the classroom but also to help them emerge as more virtuous human beings who, in turn, help produce virtuous citizens in the form of their students.

The curriculum at UD is, at once, deeply conservative and profoundly radical: on one hand, it grounds itself in classical texts, medieval curricular distinctions and old-fashioned methods of teaching. On the other, it makes the implicit promise that serious engagement with specific texts can reshape character and personality for the better. To be sure, it is a tall order and, as the Classical Education Graduate Program has only existed since 2016, it will be some time before it is possible to reach a verdict on its efficacy. So far, however, the program has grown quickly, attracted significant interest and some of its credentials are now accepted in virtually all states. Accordingly, if nothing else, UD’s program offers a compelling and worthy new model for teacher education.

— Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute

Introduction: The Theory and Practice of Teaching Character

Tocqueville believed that the social conditions of America naturally inclined Americans to prefer activity over contemplation. In his understanding, equal political and social conditions enabled nearly everyone in America to constantly change their status, making American society turbulent and restless compared to Tocqueville’s native France, where aristocratic hierarchy dictated fixed social and political positions. Yet, this constant churning in the social life made Americans illdisposed to take up extensive meditation and theoretical study, which he claimed require calmness and rest.1

If his claim is accurate and still holds, character education that takes place largely within the classroom and claims reflection to be equal in importance to activity might strike Americans as impractical and antiquated. Nevertheless, the University of Dallas (UD), a liberal arts college, has established a new teacher preparation program premised on the belief that contemplation must precede action, and that understanding virtue is a precondition for intentional virtuous action.2 Thus, the program’s classical theory of character education eschews the pragmatic idea that education is primarily concerned with gaining a fixed set of skills and instead offers an education devoted to fostering inquiry, cultivating virtue and ultimately, inculcating wisdom. Far from being impractical, the program’s leaders hold that these pursuits develop the highest capacities of human nature and promote human flourishing. To help translate this into concrete pedagogical practice, UD established a master’s program in the humanities, which trains K-12 teachers in both the theory and practices of classical education that are most suitable for teaching the classical liberal arts in K-12 classrooms.

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